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Lithuanian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls With Tomato Sauce (Balandeliai)

Cabbage Rolls (a.k.a Balandeliai) on a large black plate with tomato sauce a dollop of sour cream on top.

One of the best classic Lithuanian dishes that is made in many other countries across the world with just a few modifications! Balandeliai are typically made with some type of ground meat and rice filling rolled into cabbage leaves and cooked in a light tomato sauce. Served with boiled potatoes and a generous dollop of sour cream, Lithuanian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls with Tomato Sauce are filling, homey and delicious!

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Most countries around the world seem to have their own version of stuffed cabbage rolls. Whilst the filling and cooking methods vary slightly, the French call them Chou Farci, Lebanese have Malfouf, in Poland they are known as Golabki and in Germany – Krautwickel.

A version of stuffed rolls is made in Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Romania and other Eastern European countries, but the Lithuanian version is closest to my heart as I’ve learnt to make them first-hand from my family when I was little.

What Are Balandeliai?

So today I am sharing a classic recipe for Lithuanian cabbage rolls – BALANDELIAI. The word itself has several meanings, it could mean small doves, pigeons or simply two people madly in love with each other. Why they are called that, I never questioned (until writing this post, at which point I asked my mum and Google, and neither could give me a definitive answer).

The recipe uses a whole medium-sized cabbage head. The best time of the year to make these is when cabbages are in season and you can use a young, freshly harvested head, but don’t worry if you want to make them out of season, they will simply take a little while longer to cook and become tender.

Lithuanian Balandeliai recipe typically involves ground pork and rice filling, but I have seen them made with beef or turkey mince as well. There are different ways families across Lithuania make these pork parcels. After encasing the filling in cabbage leaves, some roll them in flour and fry them in the pan before cooking them in stock and tomato sauce. But the easiest way is to skip the frying and boil them right after shaping.

three LIthuanian cabbage rolls on a black plate, one of them cut in half, served with potatoes.

Ingredients and Substitutes

  • medium-sized cabbage: see the section below for more information on what cabbage to choose.
  • ground pork: we used 12% fat pork for this recipe, but note that the leaner meat you use, the harder the filling will be, so we don’t recommend using extra-lean mince.
  • white rice: any long-grain white rice will work well.
  • butter: salted or unsalted, you choose.
  • carrots: coarsely grated, add lots of flavour to the sauce.
  • brown onion: can be replaced with white or red onion or shallots. It will be used both in the filling and the sauce.
  • ketchup: can be replaced with 2 tbsp of tomato paste mixed with 1 tbsp of sugar.
  • sour cream: can be substituted with creme fraiche. You will need lots of it (we use about 300ml of it in this recipe) – Lithuanians love sour cream!
  • stock cube: we used vegetable stock, but pork or chicken stock will work great here too.
  • potatoes: both starchy and waxy potatoes will work. Waxy potatoes will keep their shape better but absorb less flavour from the sauce, whilst the opposite is true for floury potatoes.

What Cabbage To Use For Lithuanian Cabbage Rolls?

You can use green or white cabbage – they both work equally well. I haven’t tried making these with Savoy, but I hear that the French have a very similar dish (Chou Farci) that uses Savoy, so I am sure it would work great too.

Here are a few things to consider with regard to your choice of cabbage:

  • Fresh young cabbage is easier to work with – the leaves separate easier, they are more flexible and therefore lend themselves better for rolling the filling in, and they cook quicker.
  • Green cabbage cooks quicker than white cabbage and the leaves are also thinner and more flexible.
  • Make sure to use the medium to large cabbage head. You will struggle to roll enough filling into a small leaf.

Method: How to Make Balandeliai?

There are three main steps in making perfect Lithuanian Stuffed Cabbage. First, we separate the leaves of the cabbage. Then we make the pork and rice filling and encase it in the leaves. Finally, we boil the cabbage rolls in a stock and tomato sauce.

Step 1: How To Separate Cabbage Leaves for Balandeliai?

There are two ways to separate cabbage leaves. The traditional way and the microwave way. Since I’ve learnt to make this recipe from the older generations in my family, I never typically use a microwave, but I’ve experimented with it once to be able to include this option in the recipe too.

Old-Fashioned Method

Bring a large pot of water to a boil (large enough to cover at least 2/3 of the cabbage head). Place the cabbage head in a pot. Boil on low heat for approx. 10 minutes. When the outer leaves soften, carefully cut them off from the cabbage head and place them on a plate. Return the cabbage to the pan of water and keep on boiling to soften the leaves, then remove them and carry on until you are left with just a small head with leaves too small to roll filling in. Save the water you’ve been cooking the cabbage in.

The Microwave Method

Put the cabbage in a shallow microwave-safe bowl and pour a couple of tablespoons of water in it. Place it in the microwave for 3-4 minutes for the leaves to start softening. Peel the outer leaves off and return the cabbage to the microwave to soften more leaves. Continue until you are left with leaves that are too small to hold the filling in.

***

Cut the hard thick part of the stem from each cabbage leaf. Simply run the knife flat across to make the thickness of the stalk the same as the rest of the leaf (see the first photo below).

Step 2: Make The Pork Filling and Shape The Cabbage Rolls

To make the filling, mix ground pork with rice and finely chopped onions. Season with salt and pepper. That’s it!

Spoon 2 tablespoons of filling in the centre of each leaf, fold the one side of the cabbage leaf over, then fold in the sides and wrap it into a roll (just like you would when making a wrap with tortillas). Continue until you’ve used up all the filling and cabbage leaves. I got 16 cabbage rolls in total.

Step 3: Cook

Fry the grated carrots and thinly sliced onions with a tbsp of butter until starting to brown.

Place the rolls snuggly in a single layer at the bottom of a large pot. Then scatter with some carrots and onions. Place the potatoes in any gaps nooks and crannies as you go. Add another layer of cabbage rolls and keep on alternating with the fried veg until you’ve run out.

Mix the stock cube into approximately 1.5l of the reserved cabbage water (if you used the microwave method for the cabbage leaves, just use water) and the ketchup. Pour the mixture into the pot (add more water if needed to cover approx 2/3 of the rolls). Season with salt, black pepper and add a couple of knobs of butter and a couple of tbsp of sour cream on top.

Cook on low heat for approx. 50 minutes covered with a lid, until the cabbage leaves are soft and tender.

Serve the Stuffed Cabbage Rolls With Tomato Sauce they’ve been cooking in and boiled potatoes from the pot. Top Balandeliai with a generous dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

Recipe FAQs

Why Is The Meat In My Cabbage Rolls Hard?

The most likely reason for hard meat is not enough fat content in it. Don’t use extra lean mince in this recipe. With the added grains in the filling, you want that moisture for both the flavour and to ensure succulent meat.

Why is My Tomato Sauce Thin?

It is meant to be. Traditionally, the thin sauce with cooked grated carrots and onions is poured over the cabbage rolls and potatoes. As you eat your cabbage rolls, the sauce mixes with the sour cream on top. Lithuanians like to leave one or two potatoes until the end, then mash them with a fork to absorb any leftover tomato sauce at the end.


Other Lithuanian Recipes To Try

For my favourite Lithuanian recipes, have a look if you are tempted with any of the below:

Recipe Card

Cabbage rolls on a large black plate.

Lithuanian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls With Tomato Sauce (Balandeliai)

One of the best traditional Lithuanian dishes that is made in many other countries across the world with just a few modifications! Cabbage rolls are typically made with some type of minced meat and rice filling rolled into cabbage leaves and cooked in a light tomato sauce. Served with boiled potatoes and a generous dollop of sour cream, the Stuffed Cabbage Rolls are filling, homey and delicious!
5 from 1 vote
Prep Time 50 mins
Cook Time 50 mins
Total Time 1 hr 40 mins
Course Dinner, Main Course
Cuisine Eastern European, Lithuanian
Servings 6 portions
Calories 502 kcal

Ingredients
 
 

  • 1 medium-sized cabbage white or green
  • 300 g ground pork
  • 75 g white rice
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 3 carrots coarsely grated
  • 2 brown onions half thinly sliced, half finely chopped
  • 4 tbsp ketchup
  • 2 tbsp sour cream
  • 1 vegetable stock cube
  • 1 kg potatoes halved or quartered if using large potatoes

To Serve:

  • 200 ml sour cream or creme fraiche

Instructions
 

  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil (large enough to cover at least 2/3 of the cabbage head). Place the cabbage head in a pot. Boil heat for approx. 10 minutes. When the outer leaves soften, carefully cut them off from the cabbage head and place them on the plate. Return the cabbage and keep on boiling to soften the leaves until you are left with just a small head with leaves too small to roll filling in. Reserve the water cabbage has been cooking in. See the notes for an alternative (microwave) method.
  • Cut the hard thick stalks of each cabbage leaf thicker part of the stem from each cabbage leaf. Simply run the knife flat across to make the thickness of the stalk the same as the rest of the leaf.
  • To make the filling, mix ground pork with rice finely chopped onion. Season with salt and pepper.
  • Spoon 2 tbsp of filling in the centre of each leaf, fold one side of the cabbage leaf over, then fold in the sides and wrap it into a roll (just like tortilla wrap). Continue until you've used up all the filling and cabbage leaves. (I got 16 cabbage rolls in total).
  • On medium-high heat, fry the grated carrots and sliced onions with a tbsp of butter until starting to brown.
  • Place the rolls snuggly in a single layer at the bottom of the pot. Put the potatoes in all the gaps, nooks and crannies in between rolls. Then scatter with some carrots and onions. Add another layer of cabbage rolls, potatoes and keep on alternating with the fried veg until you've run out.
  • Dissolve the stock cube in approx 1.5l of the reserved cabbage water (you may need more or less depending on the shape of your pan) and add the ketchup. Pour the mixture into the pot (add more water if needed to cover approx 2/3 of the rolls in the pot). Season with salt, black pepper and add a couple of knobs of butter and a couple of tbsp of sour cream on top and cook on low heat for approx. 50 minutes covered with a lid.
  • Serve the cabbage rolls with boiled potatoes, all covered in the thin tomato sauce they cooked in and a generous dollop of sour cream.

Notes

If you won’t want to boil the cabbage head in water in order to separate the leaves, you can also use the microwave method: 

Put the cabbage in a shallow microwave-safe bowl and pour a couple of tablespoons of water into it. Place it in the microwave for 3-4 minutes for the leaves to start softening. Peel the outer leaves off and return the cabbage to the microwave to soften more leaves. Continue until you are left with leaves that are too small to hold the filling in.

Nutrition

Calories: 502kcalCarbohydrates: 57gProtein: 17gFat: 24gSaturated Fat: 12gTrans Fat: 1gCholesterol: 70mgSodium: 386mgPotassium: 1415mgFiber: 10gSugar: 10gVitamin A: 7061IUVitamin C: 84mgCalcium: 142mgIron: 3mg
Keyword Balandeliai, Balandeliai Receptas, Balandeliai Recipe, Cabbage Stuffed with pork and RIce, Eastern European Cabbage Rolls, Lithuanian Balandeliai Recipe, Lithuanian Cabbage Rolls, Lithuanian Food, Lithuanian Recipes, Pork & Rice Stuffed Cabbage Leaves
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